Journalist remembers Cambodia war years

When journalist Sylvana Foa was expelled from Cambodia in 1973, after accurately reporting that US Embassy personnel were directing the now-infamous bombing campaign here, she did what anyone who has met Ms Foa might expect. She found a way to come back.

She wrote to General In Tam and asked if she could return to pack up her things, as “they had literally dragged me to the airport,” she said in an interview in the capital yesterday.

“He said sure, come back and pack up,” she explained. “So I came back and went back to work as if nothing had happened.”

Later that year, Ms Foa was expelled a second and final time by the Lon Nol government after she broke the news that a US B-52 bomber had mistakenly dropped its load on the ferry town of Neak Luong, she said yesterday. The bombing killed at least 137 and wounded hundreds.

Ms Foa is one of roughly two dozen journalists reuniting in Phnom Penh this week after covering the conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and ’70s.

A former stringer for Newsweek, the now “basically retired” 65-year-old had colorful career after she left Cambodia. Ms Foa was the first foreign editor of a major international news organization, the United Press International news service, and the first woman news director of a US television network, the Spanish-language Univision, she said yesterday.

More recently, she was spokesman for UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Her outspoken style did not strike many as a natural fit for a UN mouthpiece, earning her a profile in The New York Times which described her as a wisecracking, chain-smoking ex-journalist with an irreverent sense of humor.

Ms Foa began yesterday’s interview by ordering a double espresso, “very hot.” She laughed easily, and often, and said Phnom Penh remains her favorite city, despite some of the newer “monstrosities” going up.

“It’s probably the least changed of all the places I once loved,” she said, explaining that she last visited in 2005.

The US native now makes her home in Tel Aviv where she teaches a course on conflict journalism. Though she reported from the war in Vietnam, she said her years in Cambodia were the more memorable.

“In Vietnam you were one of 500 correspondents and you were usually in a big office and in the morning you got told, ‘You go here, you go there,'” she explained. “Where as here, I was the office. And I could do anything I want.”

In 1973, after she was expelled from Cambodia for the final time, Ms Foa went to China and interviewed Norodom Sihanouk, the ousted prince who was in exile at the time after being deposed by Lon Nol.

She remembers him as being “very, very honest.”

“He was one of those people who just said whatever he believed,” she said. “I mean there he was, basically aligned with the Khmer Rouge because Lon Nol had thrown him out. There he was, stuck, and he hated the Khmer Rouge.”

She said Prince Sihanouk specifically mentioned Ieng Sary, who is awaiting trial at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

“He said to me, Ieng Sary, that man with the pig eyes, be very careful of him,” she said in a raspy whisper, imitating secretiveness. “His pig eyes. I don’t trust people with pig eyes.”

 

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